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MILES DAVIS - His final decade

Thirty Years On
The musical legacy of his final decade

Appraisal by George Cole

M1 I once met the drummer Jimmy Cobb and then proceeded to ask him a really stupid question. At the time, Cobb was the last surviving member of the band that recorded Miles Davis’s seminal album Kind of Blue (sadly, Cobb has since died). After shaking Cobb’s hand I blurted, “Did you know that you were recording a classic album when you made Kind of Blue?” The answer of course was “no” and that is because it takes time before we really know the true impact of any art.

Bassist/producer Marcus Miller says that musicians can only try to create music that reflects the times they are living in, but they have no control over how that music will be viewed further down the road, because no one knows what the road will be like in ten, fifty or a hundred years from now. The arts world is littered with composers, musicians, artists, novelists and playwrights who were the superstars of their day, but now, are not even a footnote of a footnote. Conversely, there are works (including architecture, music and art) that were dismissed in their day, but which are now viewed as masterpieces.

The musical legacy of Miles Davis is of course, vast and unquestionable, stretching from the late 1940s, when playing bebop with Charlie Parker and recording the Birth of the Cool sessions;  the 1950s and his first great quintet, Kind of Blue and the classic collaborations with Gil Evans. In the 1960s there is the second great quintet, and the move into jazz-rock fusion with albums such as In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. His jazz-rock-funk explorations of the 1970s, once dismissed by some as “noise” are now widely acknowledged as being ahead of their time, but what about the music from his last ten years?

When I started researching my book, The Last Miles, which examines his music from the 1980s, Miles had been dead for thirteen years. When the book was published four year later, it included a chapter that examined the legacy of this period. I concluded that it was too early to say what that might be. One critic described this as a cop out, but I stand by my decision. But now, forty years since the release of Miles’s comeback album The Man With The Horn in 1981, and 30 years after his death, I believe we have a much clearer picture of the legacy of this period, and my conclusion is that much of the music from this era deserves to be seen as an important part of Miles’s musical legacy, just as the music is from earlier periods. I concede that, many cases, it is not as groundbreaking as that from other eras, but nevertheless, it should not be ignored, dismissed or discarded.

The last ten years of Miles’s musical journey neatly divides into two periods: his Columbia years, from 1980 to mid-1985, and the Warner Years, from 1985 until his death in 1991. But within these two periods, Miles’s music continued to evolve and continued to challenge musicians, fans and critics. The Man with the Horn reflected a musician who was grappling to find a new musical direction and also regain his chops. This was understandable, as Miles had dropped out of the music scene for five years and hardly picked up his horn in that period. But even the music from this album still stands up today, from Mike Stern’s searing guitar solo on the jazz-funk ‘Fat Time’ to Marcus Miller’s punchy bass vamp on ‘Aida’ to Barry Finnerty’s power chords on the dark ‘Back Seat Betty.’ Miles even plays some jazz-swing on ‘Ursula.’ And being a child of the 70s disco era, I still get a buzz from listening to ‘Shout.’

When Miles went on the road in 1981, his band was mainly composed of young musicians – guitarist Mike Stern, saxophonist Bill Evans, bassist Marcus Miller and percussionist Mino Cinelu. The exception was drummer Al Foster, who had been with Miles since 1972. The music Miles created on the road was similar to that created in the studio for The Man with the Horn – largely improvised with the minimum direction from Miles. Yet, the band gelled and created some memorable music. The live album which documents the band, We Want Miles, still sounds fresh and exciting today. It includes Miles’s enduring signature tune, ‘Jean-Pierre,’ with its child-like melody and thundering bass vamp. Other standout tracks include, ‘Back Seat Betty,’ where mid-way, Miles unleashes an explosive flurry of notes that takes your breath away; ‘Fast Track,’ which crackles and fizzes with energy, and the exquisite 20-minute version of Gershwin’s ‘My Man’s Gone Now,’ which features some fine tender playing by Miles.


M2 The next album, Star People, was in many ways a transition album. It marked the last time Miles worked in the studio with his long-time producer Teo Macero, and old friend Gil Evans. Miles was also taking a greater interest in synthesisers, drum machines and studio technology (at one point during the sessions, even trying out a click track or metronome). The music was also becoming more structured, with the band given charts which featured more than just a brief sketch. The band line-up was also changing – Marcus Miller would be replaced by Tom Barney, while guitarist John Scofield joined to create a dual-guitar line-up.

Star People includes two blues numbers, the 19-minute title track (which would later become known as ‘New Blues’ when played live) and ‘It Get Better,’ which highlights Scofield’s playing. The two live tracks, ‘Come Get It’ and ‘Speak’ burst with energy, with the former having arguably the busiest bass lines of any Miles era. For many, Star People represents the high-watermark of Miles’s Columbia Records output from the 1980s, and it still has plenty to offer fans of jazz, blues and funk.

Miles’s 1984 release Decoy, found Miles, his music and his band all in a state of flux. Teo Macero was no longer at the helm and Miles initially took on the producer’s role. But he soon opted for a more hands-off role, delegating the bulk of the production work to his new keyboard player Robert Irving III and his nephew, Vince Wilburn Jr. Both men had played on The Man with the Horn, and being in their twenties, had their pulse on both the contemporary music scene and the evolving studio technology. Unlike with earlier albums, Miles would not attend the tracking sessions, and would often listen to the music over the phone or from tapes supplied by Irving III and Wilburn Jr.

Some of the music on Decoy, including ‘Robot 450’ and ‘Freaky Deaky’ is forgettable, but it’s easy to overlook the fact that a superb cast of musicians play on this album, including Scofield, now the sole guitarist in Miles’s band, new bassist Darryl “The Munch” Jones and guest musician Branford Marsalis, who plays soprano sax on several tracks. Three tracks standout – the title track, with its ferocious bass line and superb solos from Scofield and Marsalis; the long, slow, bluesy ‘That’s Right,’ and the live track ‘What It Is’ which includes more thundering bass from Jones.

You're Under Arrest is the most commercial album Miles released during this period, reflecting the fact that was originally planned as an album of pop tune covers, arranged by Gil Evans. Instead, it turned out to be a mix of pop, politics and jazz-funk and one of Miles’s best-selling albums of this era. The best known numbers are the covers of Michael Jackson’s ‘Human Nature’ and Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time,’ but there is much more to this album. John McLaughlin guests on guitar on two strong numbers (three, if you include a short prelude) the reggae-laced ‘Ms Morrisine,’ and the barnstorming studio jam ‘Katia,’ while the title track, a John Scofield composition, is an exciting, energetic number with some stirring tenor sax from the late Bob Berg.

The final album Miles recorded with Columbia was Aura, although it would be four years before it was finally released (Columbia’s shoddy treatment of the album was one reason Miles gave for leaving the record label). Aura saw Miles team up with Danish trumpeter/composer Palle Mikkelborg to create an orchestral work featuring the Danish Radio Big Band, Aura is composed of ten movements that encompass everything from classical to blues to funk to reggae. John McLaughlin guests on several tunes, and one of the best tracks, “Green,” features the late Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen on acoustic bass. Percussionist Marilyn Mazur, who later joined Miles’s band, also plays on it. Miles is in fine lip, playing with much power, range and expression – he was clearly energized by the experience. Aura still sounds fresh today, although the electronic drums (included at Miles’s behest) sound a little dated. Nevertheless, it is one of his finest works of the decade - Miles described it as a masterpiece, and who can argue with that?


When Miles moved from Columbia Records to Warner Bros. not even he knew what musical direction he would take. After several musical explorations, Miles recorded Tutu, arguably his last classic album. It’s hard to overstate the seismic impact Tutu made at the time. Produced by Marcus Miller and Tommy LiPuma, with programming by Jason Miles and Adam Holzman, Tutu transformed Miles’s career and introduced him to new audiences.

Tutu had Miles playing along to machines, and it fiercely divided his critics – some people were excited by the music; others dismissed it. But Tutu stands the test of time. Yes, some of it sounds dated and tracks, such as ‘Splatch’ and ‘Perfect Way,’ are a little stiff and mechanical, but much of the music holds up well. The dark, brooding bass line at the start to the title track never fails to grab your attention and Miles plays superbly on the track. ‘Tomaas’ offers a neat slice of jazz-funk, while the ballad ‘Portia’ is simply beautiful. Two other tracks that are often overlooked are the reggae-flavoured ‘Don’t Lose Your Mind’ which includes Michal Urbaniak on electric violin and the funky ‘Full Nelson,’ which has more than a hint of Prince (this is no accident, as Prince was originally going to have one of his compositions on the album and ‘Full Nelson’ was written as a transition to it).

An album that is often forgotten from this period is Siesta, the soundtrack to the film of the same name. Marcus Miller was once again at the production helm. Siesta contains some of Miles’s finest playing from this era and he performs mostly with open horn. Some have compared Siesta to Miles’s collaboration with Gil Evans on Sketches of Spain - both albums involved Miles playing on musical arrangements composed by others, and both albums contain Spanish themed music. Not for nothing is Siesta sometimes referred to as the quiet classic from Miles’s 1980s oeuvre.

The third and final collaboration between Miles and Miller was Amandla. The album had a bigger production budget, a larger ensemble of musicians (including Miles’s saxophonist Kenny Garrett) and was recorded over a two-year period. Amandla is a sleek, polished production and lacks the impact of Tutu. Even so, it contains some fine tunes including, the title track, and ‘Mr Pastorius’ a jazz-swing tribute to the late bassist Jaco Pastorius, which also features Al Foster on drums.

Miles’s last album project, Doo-bop, saw him combining jazz with hip-hop and working with rapper/producer Easy Mo Bee. Miles was not the first artist to fuse jazz and hip-hop, but his musical explorations in this genre gave it a validity that encouraged other artists to take the same path. Sadly, Doo-Bop is a half-finished project, as Miles died before its completion. But it gives us an idea of his next musical direction. Doo-Bop has been criticised for the quality of the rapping on the album, with some saying that Miles should have collaborated with more cutting-edge rappers. But as Mo Bee points out, at 65, Miles did not want to be associated with raps that denigrated women or glorified violence. But whatever you think of the rapping, Miles’s playing hits home, and tracks such as ‘Mystery’ and ‘Sonya’ stand up to the best that acid-jazz can offer.

M3 Miles’s studio albums are just part of his 1980s legacy and his live work is arguably a more representative aspect of this era. Anyone fortunate to see Miles playing live during the last decade will know how tunes were often expanded, rearranged and energized on the stage. The studio version of ‘Human Nature’ for example, is a pleasant four-minute re-working of the tune, but the live version could stretch to 20 minutes and feature an explosive guitar or sax solo.

It’s ironic that only one live album – We Want Miles - was released during the last decade of Miles’s life (Star People and Decoy both included a couple of live tracks each), and Miles had hoped that another would be released – there were plans to release a live album recorded in Denmark in 1985, and a live album from Nice from 1986, but they never came to fruition. The first new live release was in 1995, and the album Live Around The World. The recordings cover concerts from 1988-1991, with almost all taken from soundboard tapes made by Miles’s front-of-house sound engineer Patrick Murray, who used a digital recorder. The resulting tapes were of such high quality that material from two concerts was broadcast on the major radio series The Miles Davis Radio Project.

Since then, more official live has emerged, most notably the 2002 release of The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux, which documented all of Miles’s live performances at the Montreux Jazz Festival between 1973 and 1991, with the vast majority of concerts taken from the 1980s. The 20-disc boxed set is a feast for fans of Miles’s live performances and includes tunes and band members not found on any other official releases. A 1983 concert from Poland has been released, and this year, saw the release of Merci Miles! (reviewed in this month’s albums), recorded at Vienne, France in 1991. There have also been a number of concerts released on DVD from Munich, Montreal, Paris, Warsaw and Montreux.

The Miles Davis Estate, comprised of his son Erin, daughter Cheryl and nephew Vince Wilburn Jr, with Darryl Porter, general manager Miles Davis Properties LLC, have taken great care of his legacy and that includes the sanctioning of releases. The different approaches taken by Columbia Records (part of Sony Records) and Warner towards this era has been striking. There is a vast library of unreleased material from the 1980s in Columbia’s vaults including, alternative studio versions (such as a nine-minute take of ‘Time After Time’ and a 17-minute take of ‘Back Seat Betty’), outtakes, scrapped projects, live concerts and rehearsals.

A large amount of unreleased material was recorded during the Star People sessions, for instance, including a duet between Miles on electric piano and JJ Johnson on trombone. During the 1990s, Columbia had planned a series of special releases of Miles’s 1980s albums, with each record having extra tracks, but the project was scrapped. Rumours occasionally surface of a major boxed set release from the 1980s, similar to the superb ones produced for earlier eras, such as Bitches Brew and the second great quintet, but at the time of writing, nothing has emerged. Columbia has released the Complete Columbia Album Collection, a 71-disc boxed set which included all of Miles’s albums from the 1980s. The boxed set offers a special version of We Want Miles, which has three extra tracks taken from a 1981 Tokyo concert, but so far, that is the extent of the interest in releasing more material from this period.

By contrast, Warner Jazz has continued to release material from this era. Much credit should be given to Florence Joelle Halfon, a consultant for Warner Music’s jazz catalogue in the UK. Working closely with the Miles Davis Estate, she has championed the music from this era and helped to compile anthologies, compilations, special edition releases, remastered versions, as well as new studio and live albums, co-producing some of these releases.

Ten years after Miles’s death, Warner Bros. were planning a six-disc anthology, The Last Word, which would contain a mix of tracks from Miles’s albums, plus outtakes, unreleased material (including two tunes composed by Prince), guest appearances and live performances. The project was later reduced to a four-disc release and then scrapped. In 2010, Warner UK released Perfect Way: The Miles Davis Anthology, The Warner Bros. Years, a two-disc release which offered a selection of tracks from Miles’s studio albums, plus outtakes (including ‘Rubberband,’ the title track of an unreleased album from 1985) and live tracks. A single disc version, The Very Best of Miles Davis: The Warner Bros. Sessions 1985-1991 was later released. Warner France released a five-disc boxed set, Miles Davis 1986-1991: The Warner Years, which included two previously unreleased tracks, plus many of Miles’s guest appearances, with artists such as Cameo, Chaka Khan, Scritti Politti, Shirley Horn and Marcus Miller.

Another anthology, also called The Last Word, was released in 2015, an eight-disc boxed set containing remastered versions of Tutu, Siesta, Amandla, Dingo, Doo-Bop, Live Around The World and Miles and Quincy at Montreux, as well as a live concert from Nice 1986. Warner has also released remastered versions of Miles’s albums under its Warner Bros Masters series, each including new liner notes. In 2011, Tutu Deluxe was launched, a two-disc album featuring a remastered version of the original album and a concert from Nice in 1986 (note that Warner Bros recorded several Nice concerts and music from different nights has appeared on various releases). One of the biggest re-release projects was the Rubberband album in 2019. The sessions for the album took place in late 1985, but the project was put on hold by Tommy LiPuma. The album’s original producers, Randy Hall and Attala Zane Giles, along with Vince Wilburn Jr (who played drums on some of the original sessions) went back to the tapes, cleaned them up and also gave the music a refresh, giving it a more contemporary feel, while maintaining the integrity of what Miles was doing at time. Like much of Miles’s music, Rubberband divided opinion, but many Miles fans and critics were pleased that the music was finally out there.


M4 The latest release, Merci, Miles! Live At Vienne, featuring a concert from 1 July 1991, has been met with much critical acclaim and shows that there is an appetite for hearing more of Miles’s live work from his final decade. One hopes that this trend continues, because there is a lot of live material in the vaults. Patrick Murray, for example, recorded more than three years of concerts onto 160 digital tapes, and every Miles concert was recorded on the soundboard.

In most cases, Miles used the soundboard tapes to listen to the band performances, with the view to improving certain aspects, and many performances are recorded on low-quality cassette tape. However, it’s often overlooked that the closing track on Live Around The World, ‘Hannibal,’ was taken from Miles’s final concert at the Hollywood Bowl on 25 August 1991. By now, Murray had left, and Miles’s new sound engineer, Don Kurek, used a cheap analogue cassette tape for recording. Even so, by digitising the music, cleaning it up and tweaking the sound, a good quality recording was obtained, as anyone can confirm by listening to the resulting album track. This process was done almost 30 years ago, and it must be quicker, simpler and cheaper to do the same process today, thanks to the massive developments in audio software and computer technology over the past three decades.

If this is the case, it would be great to see concerts being released which feature musicians who played with Miles in the 1980s, but have never appeared on any official Miles Davis album (live or studio). Musicians in this group include guitarists Garth Webber, Dewayne ‘Blackbyrd’ McKnight, Hiram Bullock, Bobby Broom and Alan Burroughs; saxophonists Gary Thomas and Donald Harrison, and percussionist Rudy Bird. In addition to this material, many TV and radio stations around the world recorded Miles’s concerts, and these could provide audio sources for future album releases (Merci Miles! Is in fact, the soundtrack of an unreleased concert video).

Other possible future releases from Miles’s final era include video and album releases of the two-hour concert Miles played in Paris on 10 July 1991, when he was joined onstage by many past band members including Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland, John McLaughlin and Steve Grossman. In 1985, Miles recorded Mr Mister’s ‘Broken Wings,’ and in March 1991, he and his band recorded several Prince tunes at a studio in Germany: none of this music has yet to see the light of day. Before the 1980s, Miles had only been involved with two movie soundtracks, Ascenseur pour l'échafaud and Jack Johnson, but in the 1980s, he appeared on soundtracks for Siesta, Dingo, Scrooged, Street Smart and The Hot Spot. The original Last Word anthology planned to include tracks from Street Smart, unreleased cues from Siesta, and music Miles and Robert Irving III produced for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Miles and Irving III, along with guitarist Randy Hall, also produced a demo track for the 1986 film Wise Guys, which was never used, but nevertheless features some fine playing by Miles. It would be nice to see a ‘Miles at the Movies’ compilation that pulled all this music together.

There is a lot of interest in the music from this era and various tracks have been covered by many artists including, Cassandra Wilson, George Benson, Al Jarreau, Dave Liebman and Viktoria Mullova, In 2015, French guitarist Noël Akchoté  released two albums covering the music from Miles’s 1980s period. What It Is - The Last Miles offered 14 tracks from the 1980s including, ‘Fat Time,’ ‘Jean-Pierre,’ and ‘What It Is,’ while Big Time (The Last Miles) contained 12 tracks that included ‘Tutu,’ ‘Amandla’ and ‘Code MD.’ Music from the 1980s has been sampled by numerous hip-hop artists such as, DJ Marky, Queen Latifah, Digital Underground and South Central Cartel.

There have also been a number of bands that have paid tribute to this era, many of them comprised of musicians who played with Miles in the 1980s. ESP2 included Robert Irving III, Adam Holzman, Ricky Wellman, Mino Cinelu and Randy Hall. Vince Wilburn Jr – who played with Miles from 1985-87 – has formed the Electric Miles Band, which includes a host of Miles alumni, such as Darryl Jones, Richard Patterson, John Beasley, Deron Johnson, Munyungo Jackson, Mino Cinelu, Dewayne ‘Blackbyrd’ McKnight and Robert Irving III. Ten years ago, Marcus Miller embarked on a two-year world tour playing the music of Tutu with a group of young musicians, and in 2019, he played two concerts at New York’s Lincoln Centre honouring Miles called,  ‘Electric Miles.’  The track ‘Tutu’ has become as much a signature tune for Miller as it was for Miles, and the bassist never fails to play it during his concerts.
Thirty years on from Miles’s death, the music he played during the last decade of his life still resonates. It’s still being discovered by younger generations; still being explored and re-interpreted by musicians, and still being enjoyed by countless music fans. It’s a picture that looks set to remain the same for many years ahead.

M5Many thanks to photographer Shigeru Uchiyama for kindly allowing us to use some of the many superb photos he took of Miles and his bands during the 1980s. Shigeru has published two great photo books on Miles, Miles Smiles and No Picture! His Instagram page – which has images of many of the jazz artists he has photographed over the years - is at: https://www.instagram.com/whisper.not/

There is also an interview with him here: https://www.thelastmiles.com/interviews-shigeru-uchiyama/

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